Sunday, April 6, 2014

What Next For Community Radio?

Although I don't work day to day in community radio anymore, I recently joined National Federation of Community Broadcasters board of directors. I also remain on a few different station listservs. Here's what I've observed and here's what I think needs to happen next.

The Web Is Not Another Tower

A complaint that goes as far back as the hills in community radio is that if the stations would just market the programs, the audiences would come, membership would rise and all would be good. With the advent of a virtual platform, community radio volunteers eagerly awaited the day when their 3 hour blues/punk/rock/alternative/spoken word/public affairs/fill in the blank genre program would all of the sudden be made visible to the thousands of listeners who never knew what they were missing.

Alas, online listening is nowhere close to over the air listening...which is depressing, because there are public radio stations with online streams with more listeners than community radio stations' terrestrial broadcasts. Community radio volunteers are fixated on their programs - and not on content. One of the saddest moments of my community radio life was when a very dear news volunteer at a station asked why the station didn't transcribe the news scripts with the audio embedded inbetween the copy. And yet these are the things that need to be explained to community radio volunteers who center everything around audio.

Having archived shows online is great - but it does little to grow an audience or keep them coming back. The alternative?

Use the Web to Create and Curate Content

The web is so much more than a transcription tool for radio programs. What about a community radio DJ who planned his or her show every week around a genre or a theme and wrote a blog about it online that s/he could point the audience to during the program? Music programmers already program their shows around bands that are coming into town or playing that weekend. How about a community radio station that hired a Director of Community Content Curation (it's community radio - let's have some fun with job titles!) and worked with volunteers to write music reviews, profiles of local bands and Storifies of recent shows and concerts? KDHX in Saint Louis and KBUT in Crested Butte, CO are experimenting with these ideas - they're seeing wonderful growth in online engagement and adding to the cultural vitality of their communities.

Don't Cannibalize Your Mission 

My final piece of advice to community radio stations with lots of volunteers: don't cannibalize your mission of media access by weighting your website down with online archives on the front page. There are several studies that show that people want more than the ability to listen online, live or archived programming. The biggest mistake community radio stations are making is assuming that people ONLY want to listen and that the station's business is ONLY broadcast. The spirit of community radio's mission is to make a community impact: by diversifying the airwaves with community members. We can do that online now as well - which also is a part of our mission.

Be Forewarned

There are cautionary tales of community radio stations who let the kibbutznik mentality almost drive their organizations into the ground. None of these stations have been forced to sell their licenses - but colleges have been divesting their radio licenses for the last 15 years and that is a caution for community radio stations to take heed of. We've lost a lot of towers on college campuses - let's not see community radio stations go next.

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